Equity Advisory and Action Committee

The Equity Advisory and Action Committee advises the governance board on equity initiatives, provides guidance to staff on strategic development, and serves as a resource for member organizations to advance equity goals. Members of the committee help select content for our annual Great Lakes Restoration Conference and partner with our state leaders to find messengers with compelling stories to share with members of congress. The committee is lead by Carla Walker, of think BIG strategies.

Members of the equity committee:

BRENDA COLEY
Co-Executive Director, Milwaukee Water Commons
Brenda Coley is the Co-Executive Director of Milwaukee Water Commons. Over the years she has served in various positions in the non-profit and academic sectors and brings a long-standing commitment to social justice and community organizing.  She has been a non-profit director, research coordinator, and project manager with expertise in leadership development and organizational capacity building.

Before joining Milwaukee Water Commons, Coley was the sole proprietor of Brenda Coley & Associates, helping local and national organizations build the cultural competence to approach marginalized populations around health, leadership development and social justice issues.  In addition, she has served on many community engagement boards and public health initiatives, specifically focused on equality and health disparities within the LGBTQ and other minority communities in Milwaukee.

Coley brings to MWC her philosophy on being a servant leader.  She is committed to exploring the influences of one’s own culture or cultures and understanding ways in which groups of people have been and are treated in society, using that knowledge to develop strategies to effectively engage diverse groups of people in important community issues.

ERNEST COVERSON
Regional Director, Amnesty International
Ernest Coverson is the leading voice for urban centers for Amnesty International in the Great Lakes Region. His background in public policy, civil rights and social justice serves as influence in the organization’s international responses, efforts and outcomes. Coverson serves as Senior Organizer with six years of leadership. He has also served with the national NAACP and with other corporate organizations.
CRYSTAL DAVIS
Policy Director, Alliance for the Great Lakes
Crystal M.C. Davis leads policy and advocacy efforts related to Lake Erie, and manages the Alliance’s Ohio office in Cleveland as Policy Director. Prior to the Alliance, Crystal spent eight years in government relations with Kent State University (KSU). Most recently, she served as the federal relations director for KSU’s Office of Government & Community Relations. Based in Washington, D.C., she established the university’s office on Capitol Hill and was the liaison between KSU, members of Congress, their staffs, key executive agencies, the administration and national associations. Immediately prior to assuming that role, Crystal worked as KSU’s senior legislative officer for state government relations. Based in Columbus, Ohio, she was the university’s chief strategist on all matters related to advocacy, public policy analysis, legislative involvement and management of relationships with elected officials. She has extensive experience in government and external affairs having also worked for the Ohio House of Representatives, the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Crystal is a graduate of Kent State University.
KIRA DAVIS
Program Director, Conservation Resource Alliance
Kira Davis is the Program Director for Conservation Resource Alliance (CRA) located in Traverse City, Michigan. Kira joined the CRA team in 2015 after working as the Water Quality Specialist for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians for 16 years. Kira is also a tribal citizen of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians and takes her cultural role of taking care of the water to heart. Kira brings together diverse partnerships to lead CRA’s on the ground efforts to protect waterways , forests and wetlands that feed our Great Lakes.

SHEYDA ESNAASHARI
Great Lakes Drinking Water Program Manager, River Network

Sheyda grew up in the land of 10,000 lakes near the source of the Mississippi River – Saint Paul, MN. Freshwater has been a part of her life for as long as she can remember and being close to it always makes her feel at home.

Based in Chicago, IL, Sheyda has built her career around social justice and the advancement of equitable policies and practices. Previously with the Alliance for the Great Lakes, Sheyda focused on policy and advocacy efforts to protect the lakes from Asian carp, reduce runoff pollution to western Lake Erie and define and build the organization’s shift toward protecting access to clean, safe, and affordable drinking water in the region for all people. Prior to her work on water, Sheyda worked as a policy research and evaluation professional, advancing and advocating for effective social policies and programs. Her projects have included efforts to improve early childhood education outcomes in Kisumu, Kenya, advancing community health benefits for immigrant populations in Minneapolis, MN, and improving federal pesticide monitoring practices in the US food supply. Sheyda brings both broad policy expertise and strong alliance-building experience to her work at River Network, having previously developed successful, diverse partnerships across local communities, academic institutions, and nonprofit organizations ranging in scope from the local to international levels throughout her career.

Sheyda received her B.A. from the University of Minnesota in Global Studies and Human Rights and has an M.A. in Public Policy from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Sheyda is passionate about human rights and social justice, and views the Great Lakes and surrounding tributaries as a vital resource that should be accessible to all communities in the region. Sheyda’s work at River Network is driven by the belief that the health of our region’s fresh water is vital to the well-being of its surrounding communities.

JACQUELINE GILLON
Community Engagement Specialist, Western Reserve Land Conservancy
Jacqueline Gillon is a community builder, facilitator, and published poet.

As the Community Engagement Specialist for Thriving Communities Institute, a program of the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, her focus is the physical restoration of Buckeye, Woodland Hills and Mount Pleasant. Jacquie serves on the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee of the Land Conservancy. She is co-chairs Black Environmental Leaders, a new association of entrepreneurs, representatives of  national and local non-profit environmental groups and governmental organizations, dedicated to the stewardship of the natural and built environment.

She Jacquie also serves on the Cleveland City Planning Commission’s East District Design Review Committee. At Elizabeth Baptist Church, Jacquie serves as the Linkage Coordinator to the community and as a Sunday School teacher. She has volunteered on the Alcoa Fund Scholarship Selection Committee of the Cleveland Foundation for the last 8 years.

Jacquie spent a total of 19 years with Neighborhood Centers Association and Neighborhood Leadership Institute (NLI), co-facilitating and staffing 29 classes of Neighborhood Leadership Cleveland, a grassroots leadership program in partnership with the Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University. Now she serves on the board of NLI.

Her book of original poetry, Anointing In My Hands, was published in 2011.

Appointed at 23 to the former East Cleveland City Commission, she was elected at 31 and completed three consecutive terms on the East Cleveland City Council, focusing on community development, youth, environmental policy, as well as safety and law enforcement. Jacqueline Gillon is a graduate of Hiram College and completed the Wilder Foundation’s Shannon Leadership Institute in Minnesota.

MICHAEL HARRIS
Community Leader, Flint Development Center
Mike Harris has served as a community voice and organizer in the city of Flint since his days in high school. A veteran of the U.S. military, Harris works with and advises faith, elected, appointed and labor leaders around issues impacting youth, the environment, broad community and civic issues.
ERMA LEAPHART
Conservation Organizer, Sierra Club-Michigan Chapter
As the Conservation Organizer for the Michigan Chapter of the Sierra Club,  Sierra Erma Leaphart-Gouch works involves promoting green (nature-based) infrastructure as an alternative to grey infrastructure for managing stormwater and preventing sewage overflows and polluted runoff into local waterways.  She provides training on rain barrel and rain garden installations. She shares the importance of protecting Great Lakes water quality, to benefit the environment, economy and quality of life. Erma’s on the Governance Board of the Healing Our Waters Coalition and is co-chair of the Detroit City Council’s Green Task Force – Water Subcommittee. Previously, Erma worked for the State of Michigan as a Public Health Consultant and Human Resources Manager.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry and Communication from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH and a Master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.  

MONICA LEWIS-PATRICK
President and CEO, We the People of Detroit
Monica Lewis-Patrick (aka The Water Warrior) is a mother, educator, entrepreneur, and human rights activist/advocate.  She is co-founder of We The People of Detroit and became President & CEO of the organization in 2014.  Through her work with We the People, Lewis-Patrick has set up emergency water stations, opened hotlines, delivered water, provided education, and conducted community research to raise awareness about water shutoffs and water affordability in Flint and Detroit.

She is one of the leaders at the forefront of the water rights struggle in Detroit and beyond and is also the visionary, co-designer and co-author of the We The People of Detroit-Community Research Collective that published and released “Mapping the Water Crisis: The Dismantling of African-American Neighborhoods in Detroit” (August 2016) as volume one of a three-part series documenting the effects of austerity and its relationship to race in Detroit.  

She is also an active member of the People’s Water Board Coalition, US Human Rights Network, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Flint Strong Stones (Co-founder), Freshwater Futures/All About Water (Advisory Committee), Detroit Equity Action Lab (Fellow 2016) and was named to the World Water Justice Council in October 2015.  

Lewis-Patrick, attended the historic Bennett College, is a graduate of East Tennessee State University where she earned a BS degree in Social Work and Sociology; a Masters degree in Criminal Justice/Sociology and Public Management; and was a Ron McNair Scholar.

SIMONE LIGHTFOOT
Director of National Urban Initiatives, National Wildlife Federation
Simone Lightfoot serves as the Director of National Urban Initiatives for the National Wildlife Federation where she helps bolster conservation work in urban communities across the country. She works at all levels of government to engage elected and appointed officials, non-profits and community leaders on a wide range of conservation and environmental issues that impact cities. The U.S. Air Force veteran and trustee on the Ann Arbor School Board has served as a deputy chief of staff in the Michigan House of Representatives and state director for voter empowerment with the national NAACP. 

FRANCISCO ‘PACO’ OLLERVIDES
Interim Executive Director, Green Leadership Trust

Francisco Ollervides is better known as “Paco,” a common nickname in Mexico where he was born and raised. For over 19 years, has enjoyed helping nonprofit organizations and individuals think and act strategically by improving their efficiency and efficacy. 

Paco is the first Executive Director to Green Leadership Trust. He leverages the knowledge, networks and resources of People of Color and Indigenous people serving Boards of environmental organizations to build and diversify the environmental movement’s power. 

He worked for River Network as Leadership Development Manager in the Great Lakes providing capacity building and organizational development support in the areas of strategic planning, fundraising, and board development and succession planning. Paco served as Senior Field Coordinator with the Waterkeeper Alliance advising numerous nonprofit advocacy groups throughout Latin America. He has also served as Director of the Center for Coastal Studies in Mexico. Paco is a biochemical engineer and a bioacoustician by training. He has conducted field work assessing the impacts of boat noise on gray whale behavior. Paco holds both M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from the Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences Department at Texas A&M University. Paco is based near Columbus, Ohio.

JUSTIN ONWENU
Environmental Justice Organizer, Sierra Club Detroit

Justin Onwenu is a 4th generation Detroiter working as an environmental justice organizer for the Sierra Club in Detroit. He received his undergraduate degree in International Health and Policy from Rice University. During his time as a student, he organized a number of campaigns on a campus, city, and national level.

His interest in medicine and wellness led him to work to understand diseases and healthcare systems from a number of different perspectives as both a bioscience researcher focused on lung cancer metastasis and as a health policy analyst focused on patient health outcomes.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, and during his time as Rice University Student Body President, he developed a deeper appreciation for the relationship between health and environment as he organized over 1700 students, faculty and staff to help rebuild in some of Houston’s hardest hit areas. After graduating, he continued working on these issues on behalf of the Children’s Environmental Health Initiative, where he helped lead outreach efforts to bring light to the long term environmental exposures, housing, mental health, and physical health impacts of the storm.

Since moving back to Michigan to continue his work as an organizer, he has been focused on addressing the public health impact of industries on local communities, protecting the Detroit River, and empowering local residents to bring about the change they want to see. He has been published by the Detroit News, Guardian, Houston Chronicle and the New York Times on a number of topics. 

ALICIA SMITH
Associate Director of Policy, Freshwater Future
Alicia manages the Great Lakes Network and guides Freshwater Future’s engagement in state and federal policy. In Alicia’s most recent position she served as the Executive Director of Youth Commission and Manager of Youth and Recreation for the City of Toledo. She is the founder of a Toledo, Ohio community organization, Junction Coalition that started as an opportunity to help the community help themselves through partnering with others to address social, economic, and environmental issues and improve the community’s quality of life.  Alicia’s doctoral studies at the University of Toledo focus on the educational development of the youth of color within low socioeconomic and disenfranchised communities.
CARLA WALKER
CEO and Founder, think BIG strategies LLC
Carla Walker has served as the Senior Manager/Strategic Advisor for ONE Africa and is the CEO and founder of think BIG strategies, LLC. Her career spans nearly 20 years in the fields of government relations, communications, political strategy, stakeholder engagement and project management. Most notable is her work on creating the U.S. community engagement and advocacy operation for ONE.org, the non-profit co-founded by global advocate and entertainer Bono. A veteran political strategist, Walker has advised three mayors, a caucus of 12 state senators, held leadership positions in three U.S. presidential campaigns and has led or advised principals on more than 100 advocacy or candidate campaigns. In 2010, she launched think BIG strategies, a management consultancy that creates and executes strategic plans that draws on her experience advising leaders in government, non-profit, start-up and corporate spheres. She is a graduate of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, University of Florida and University of Cincinnati.